A review requested by John Taylor, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Reducing any film to the sum of its Oscar trivia is a filthy habit, but it's also fun and I'm good at it, and Grand Hotel has a real whopper of a piece of trivia associated with it. It's the second of three films to win the Best Picture Oscar and no other awards, which it did at the fifth Academy Awards, given for the awkwardly-shaped year of 1 August, 1931 through 31 July, 1932 (The Broadway Melody, Best Picture #2, and Mutiny on the Bounty, #8, are the other two). But the real point of distinction is that it's the one and only Best Picture winner to have been nominated for absolutely no other Oscars. There's no wholly positive way to spin that, but it does feel kind of fitting in a way - this was the time when the award was still called "Outstanding Production", with more of a connotation of "this is the most impressive act of studio willpower" than "this is the most aesthetically complete and admirable movie". And Grand Hotel is nothing if not an outstanding production, something in which every facet of it is less important than the massiveness of its existence. Grand Hotel is not about anything but the fact that MGM wanted to show off the full range of its resources, and in that regard, it absolutely can be the year's most Outstanding Production even without having the best direction, writing, or acting.

Though even that's missing the point a little; frankly, Grand Hotel does have the best of some of those things, or at least good enough to muscle into the not very mindblowing competition for the 1931-'32 Oscars. I won't say that director Edmund Goulding deserved a slot above King Vidor and Josef von Sternberg, but surely William Absalom Drake's adaptation of his play of Vicki Baum's novel would have been as worthy a writing nominee as the stuffy Arrowsmith. Cedric Gibbons's luscious Art Deco art direction, an extravagant showpiece for MGM's storied set builders, was outright robbed. And in a notably weak Best Actress year, Joan Crawford's failure to land a nomination instead of a pair of slumming theater goddesses doing nothing in particular (though Lynn Fontanne is leagues better than winner Helen Hayes) and an out-to-sea Marie Dressler is fucking baffling as all hell. Except that it's not, because nominating any one member of the Grand Hotel would have been almost impossible to get away with. That, you see, is exactly the point of the production's one-of-a-kind outstandingness.

Grand Hotel is a genre-starter, you see. This was the very first All-Star Cast Extravaganza, with several of MGM's most luminous names given more-or-less equal focus in a series of intertwining subplots filling up the bustling anthill of the classiest hotel in Berlin (inevitably, the shadow of that upstart politician Adolf Hitler, who came to international attention several months after the film's premiere, adds a sense of morbid gloom to the film's depiction of corruption and depravity in Germany for any viewer coming to the film later than 1933). The movie's very own opening credits stress the divine glamor of those stars more than the characters they play, or the story they play them in. Greta Garbo! Joan Crawford! John Barrymore! Lionel Barrymore! Wallace Beery! Lewis Stone! Jean Hersholt! Only about half of those names have any currency with a modern audience, but for a film lover in '32, seeing those names in one place would be their version of The Avengers (Hersholt is Hawkeye). It's hella easy to live in the 21st Century and airily proclaim that Crawford picks up the movie and runs away with it - which I take to be very much the contemporary conventional wisdom about it - but picking favorites is at a certain level entirely contrary to the spirit of the thing, which doesn't make you need to pick favorites. You just get all of them all at once. This is, never forget, an Outstanding Production.

The really impressive thing about Grand Hotel is that even if its goals are transparently those of unabashed gimmickry, it holds up superlatively well. There's only one of these "superstar ensemble" pictures that even arguably betters it, to my eyes, the following year's glorious Dinner at Eight (also by MGM, and with four of the same superstars), which has the benefit of George Cukor, a sturdier director than Goulding, and a more concrete reason for all the actors to appear in one place, beyond "hey, lotsa folks show up at a hotel". Still, while the first may not be exactly the best, it has pleasures galore in its cross-cutting of dignified melodrama anchored by a whole host of people doing sterling work - beyond Crawford's early career highlight, Lionel Barrymore is at his most sensitive and internally-directed here, with only a minimal amount of cartoonish hamming (I am not tremendously fond of the great bulk of his work prior to the full-on old man stage of his career), and John Barrymore is stone-cold serious. Garbo is... not great. Insofar as everybody who loves '30s Hollywood has that one diva to whom they give all their most serious affection and loyalty, Garbo is mine. I don't feel any need to make excuse for loving her career above Crawford's, 98% of the time. But she's on autopilot in Grand Hotel, more than in any other role I can think of. Within just a couple of years, her line "I want to be alone" had hit a critical mass of parodies to prove that this was seen as an iconic work almost immediately, and far be it from me to deny the pop culture of the 1930s its rightful obsessions. But this is the same hurt, tragic Garbo of at least a half-dozen other performances, all of which involve her being more invested and nuanced in her depiction of that hurt, and none of which so dubiously miscast her (here, she plays a ballet dancer, a profession that requires a totally different body shape and way of movement than anything within a mile of Garbo's physical performance). And certainly, none of which require her to make love to a telephone.

Outside of its misuse of a disinterested top-billed star, though, Grand Hotel is a perfect demonstration of why the Hollywood star system persisted so long, and why it still gives such vast pleasure to those of us in its cheering section. This is really and truly a film that bets the farm on the absolute charm of its actors - the script can barely be bothered, listlessly plugging in sturdy but ancient narrative shapes including the destitute baron (John Barrymore) who falls in love with his rich, suicidal mark (Garbo), the innocent stenographer (Crawford) who starts to receive the nastiest kind of attention from a thuggish captain of industry (Beery), the dying man (Lionel Barrymore) spending his last pennies on one chance to experience luxury he's never known. These were musty old chestnuts by 1932, and the film doesn't waste any time on pretending that we're there to be dazzled by the complexity of the plots and the way they interleave. We're showing up to see famous people perfectly inhabit those roles in enormous, loving close-ups and gorgeous lifestyle-porn gowns by MGM's legendary costume designer Adrian. And this is something Grand Hotel overs up by the shovelful, with that top-shelf cast breathing richness and vitality into their well-worn roles. Crawford, with her strikingly modernist and knowing expressions, is, again, the clear best in show, always marginally more wary and withholding than her scene partners in ways that make us desperately crave more information about her. But there's not a wrong foot in the movie, from the clipped brutishness of John Barrymore in his unguarded moments to Stone's weary sternness. Even Garbo's not in any way an active detriment, all my moaning about her performance notwithstanding.

Marshaling this parade of egos presented as demigods on the big screen, all Goulding really has to do is keep the spigot of close-ups and two-shots wide open, and in that respect he triumphs. But it's not fair to pretend that Grand Hotel was a director-proof movie just because it actually totally was a director-proof movie. There are some fascinating shots he carries off, such as the way the hotel's switchboards, used as a narrative framing device, are turned into geometric traps that sneakily imply a more rigid set of structures (aesthetic and social) than the script is quite willing to explore, or the occasional sudden cuts where the characters are dropped into tiny relief against the sprawling reality of the hotel that simply doesn't care about their individually pitiable tales. Cinematographer William H. Daniels gets to play around with Expressionist lighting, or at least the closest MGM's glossy house style would permit him to get to Expressionist lighting, guiding the mood more than is immediately obvious through canny manipulations of the focus and shadow in the back of shots.

It is, all told, a tremendously sturdy, thoroughly unimaginative, and massively entrancing sample of the early-'30s Hollywood machine doing everything exactly right in the creation of gratifying entertainment. It's too sober-minded to qualify as escapism, and infinitely too proud of its foregrounded desire to seduce the audience to be mistaken for high art. I cannot call it a perfect studio film; a perfect studio film would have a mechanically flawless screenplay, not a tossed-off basketful of scenarios that it cares about even less than we do. But it is the perfect Grand Hotel, one of classic Hollywood's most elegant truffles. Sure, it's still empty calories, but every gram of it reveals great, methodical craftsmanship.